As the contenders for the GOP presidential primary prepare to take to the stage in Tuscaloosa, AL, tonight (Dec. 6), the ever-dwindling audience for these events is likely asking one question: What’s the point? And yet, this somewhat dispirited attitude belies some intense gameplay taking place behind the scenes. In fact, for the right candidate – assuming the right attitude – there is treasure to be uncovered and fame to be found.
No Change at the Top
Hot on the heels of a raucous town hall hosted by Fox’s Sean Hannity, former President Donald Trump remains the firm GOP primary favorite for the nomination, polling an aggregate of 48 points ahead of his nearest rival nationally. From promising to close the border on day one and getting America drilling on “day one-and-a-half,” Trump was warmly welcomed and applauded by the attendees. He ran the gamut on topics from climate change to Joe Biden’s ability to stay in the race, and all with an air of confidence that strikes a distinctly different pose from that of the ever-cloistered President Biden.
Digging into the early voting states, the 45th president maintains a lead of 29% in Iowa and 27% in New Hampshire. Assuming no earthquakes in tonight’s debate or surprise convictions, Trump’s eventual wins in these key locales could scare off the competition.
So what are the four contenders in this evening’s Republican debate hoping to achieve against seemingly insurmountable odds?
GOP Donors Ready to Move
One of the most surprising participants in this debate is former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. According to the Republican National Committee, he achieved the debate criteria on Dec. 4, just in time to claim a podium. But what were the criteria? The Hill provided a succinct snapshot:
“Candidates were required to reach 80,000 unique donors, with at least 200 in 20 or more states each, as well as poll at least 6 percent in two national polls or at 6 percent in one national poll and in two separate early state polls.”
To say he qualified by the skin of his teeth is a huge understatement. A single national poll, concluded on Dec. 2, gave him the required 6%; also, he polled well in New Hampshire, but Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada clearly reject his particular brand of politics. Putting it plainly, Christie has no chance of being the Republican presidential nominee. In fact, rumblings in DC suggest he is being pressured to drop out and back former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to bring together the anti-Trump factions of the party. If he did, there is a chance that Haley could be on the receiving end of some serious cash.
Haley Stakes Her Claim
If one were to listen to the cable TV talking heads, it would appear that Nikki Haley is in the ascendancy and has relegated Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to an ignominious third place in the GOP race. The numbers, however, tell a different story.
Certainly, Haley has managed to pick up some big-name donors, but money carries you only so far. According to the national polling, she remains behind DeSantis – not in front of him. DeSantis is averaging 13% against Haley’s 10%. In Iowa and Nevada, the Florida insurgent maintains a healthy second place after Trump, whereas in South Carolina and New Hampshire, Haley claims that coveted second spot. Overall, she has not made any huge strides and has not increased her average polling rate during the last month.
But should Christie throw his weight behind Haley’s campaign, she would become the focal point around which anti-Trump forces coalesce. It’s a gamble for Haley, as she risks alienating a large majority of pro-MAGA voters, but it is – no matter how narrow – still a pathway to the nomination. Expect Haley to double down on Trump attacks tonight.
Just for Fun?
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is still gamely hanging on, making the cut for tonight’s debate. He has refused to denounce Trump, has taken a hardline MAGA approach, and is fearless in proposing policies that other candidates are terrified to go near. And why not? He has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Ramaswamy is the definition of a longshot candidate: no political experience, big opinions, unapologetic, and willing to run against the party machinery he wishes to represent. In fact, he is in many ways reminiscent of Trump in 2016. But, of course, there is already one Trump in the race, even if he won’t be appearing on the debate stage. So, what does Ramaswamy hope to achieve?
It seems likely that he is hoping to make a name for himself – and, along the way, have a few laughs at the GOP’s expense. He may even get a cushy political appointment that would shore up his bona fides for a potential 2028 or 2032 run if a GOP candidate wins the 2024 presidential election.
The DeSantis Disaster?
DeSantis is in an unenviable position. The media ignore him in favor of Haley, despite the polls, and Trump sees him as Target Number One. However, he does have a lot going for him, chiefly his record as governor of Florida. This record was put to the test in the recent governor debate against California’s Gavin Newsom, a clash in which DeSantis more than held his own.
He has shown that he can debate against Democrats and win, he has a lot of Sunshine State laurels to wear, and if Trump were not in the race, he would likely be the clear frontrunner. But the former president is running, and that puts the governor in a tough position. His strategy tonight could be dialing back rhetoric and refocusing on his record.
Each candidate is playing his or her particular game, and it is up to the voting public to decide whether they want to play along. It is unlikely that anyone on stage will come up with a strategy to knock down Trump’s lead, but that might not be the goal. There are other prizes to play for, and opportunities tend to present to those who are waiting by the open door.